When it comes to a cowboy's topper, the moniker "Mad Hatter" refers to more than an eccentric character in Alice in Wonderland. The origin of the term comes from the phrase "as mad as a hatter," referring to the neurological disorders some old-time hat makers suffered from breathing vapors from the mercury used to cure pelts. Today, most hats are made in factories where machines do much of the manufacturing, but there are still custom hatters who preserve and perpetuate their traditional cowboy craft.
SHEILA KIRKPATRICK MEANDERS out from behind her workbench, where she just finished shaping a damp hat body over an antique wooden mold. She stops at a table and begins rolling a piece of clay in her hand, transforming it into a horse's tail for a sculpture she's making. Then she moves over to a pellet stove to cut the chill of a windy spring morning in her custom hat shop. After warming her hands, she realizes the wind is about to sweep away her hanging shop sign, so heads outside with a ladder and hammer in hand, leaving her daughter and business partner, Erika Kirkpatrick Krist, in charge of the store.
"She's always like this—busy," Ericka says. "She never stops."
From her shop on Main Street in Twin Bridges, Montana, where the Ruby, Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers join to form the Jefferson, Sheila keeps the traditional cowboy art of hat making alive. Even though many of those who order custom cowboy hats wear them more for style than every day on the open range, the popularity of hats enables the 58-year-old cowgirl to earn a living doing what she's enjoyed since she was a youngster.
THE DAUGHTER of eastern Montana raised rodeo contestant and rodeo announcer Lyle Graves, Sheila traveled throughout the West with her father when she was a child. The thing she fixated on the most was the variety of hat shapes she saw during their travels.
"Each weekend, I'd see someone with a different style I thought was neat, and I'd go home and reshape my hat to look like it over the steaming teakettle," she recalls.
Little did she know then that her hat-shaping hobby would become her career. In her late teens and early 20s , she worked in a Western store in Billings, Montana, where she naturally gravitated toward the hat department. Before long, she'd convinced the store owners to purchase unshaped hats so she could customize them for the customers. She also worked in a custom hat shop, where she learned the art of making hats from scratch.
"It was hard to break into the custom hat business as a woman," she says. "I was told that women weren't strong enough to block hats."
Sheila proved her male skeptics wrong. In 1983, she opened Kirkpatrick Custom Hat Company in Wisdom, Montana, and filled it with antique hat-making equipment to do things the old-fashioned way. She maintained that business for 15 years, during which she outfitted celebrities such as Hank Williams Jr. and Cheryl Ladd, and was commissioned to create a hat to present to President George Bush Sr.
"My mom has made hats for famous people, but she treats them just the same as any cowboy who comes in the shop with his month's pay to buy a hat," Ericka says.
Customers are more than an order number to Sheila. That philosophy, as well as her devotion to her art, earned her a spot in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Hereford, Texas, in 1992. Part of her humble business practices stem from advice Sheila's father gave her: "Never forget where you came from."
In 1996, Sheila expanded her ranch and sold her hat company. But in 1999 she returned to her calling, opening Montana Mad Hatters. The shop sells some of the most artistic hats you'll ever find, but it's a far cry from a chic boutique. Hats of all shapes, sizes and colors float from the walls up front. In the back is a riotous array of hat bodies, boxes, chemicals, antique wooden molds and other hat making equipment. The rustic pellet wood-stove is the heart of the shop, where local cowboys drop in to warm up, have a cup of coffee and talk about cattle, horses and rodeo.
It took Sheila a while to gain the confidence of her salty male-dominated clientele, but she eventually became just one of the cowboys.
"What really helped me is being able to have a vision of what hat style would look good on a cowboy," she says. "If the hat fits well and the person feels good about himself wearing it and gets compliments on the hat, then I've done my job."
She also has earned a reputation for being a miracle-worker. She takes in hats from all makers, some in shambles, and carefully cleans and repairs them.
"It's an honor to be trusted with something so important to a cowboy," she says. "And I do everything I can to make his hat last a little longer, whether or not I originally made it."
COWBOY HATS have come a long way since they became popular in the 1800s. Back then, they were built to protect a man's face from the elements. Through time, different styles evolved for fashion and to fit the regional needs of cowboys.
"I had a Texas cowboy come in and want his hat-brim shaped like a taco," Ericka says. "I asked him why he liked that style, and he said where he is from the wind blows a lot, and the tighter the brim is rolled the less it catches in the wind."
Western films and entertainers also have inspired hat shapes. One of Sheila's most popular styles is the "Gus," a hat shaped with a high-peaked crown in back, like the hat worn by Robert Duvall's character Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Customers also ask for the "George Strait," and "Tombstone" styles.
Beyond building classic hats, Sheila and Ericka strive to be innovative trendsetters, creating wearable pieces of art. They are one of only a few hat shops that offer leather brims, felt cutouts and a straw-felt combination hat.
"The crown is straw, which helps keep your head cool, and the brim is felt for stability," Sheila explains.
Hat making led Sheila to her other art form, sculpting. One year, for Christmas, she received clay and wanted to sculpt a series of hats and boots. Now, she's creating bronzes inspired by ranching and rodeo scenes.
"Hat making is a lot like sculpting," she says. "Both are a molding process, and it takes vision and feel."
THOUGH SHE WAS RAISED in a hat shop, 24-year-old Ericka is just starting to develop the innate feel her mother has told her about her entire life. She and her husband, Kevin, live on a ranch in Wisdom. Kevin works for JC Ranches, Inc., while Ericka is pursuing a career in the medical field and helps at the hat shop.
After studying equine science and equine massage at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Ericka discovered that what she once ran away from was what she really wanted to do.
"I went through a phase where I didn't want anything to do with ranching or hat making, but now they're all I want to do," she says.
Hat making has been so much a part of Ericka's life that at one point she even thought it was part of her last name.
"When she was 4 years old, she was in a dance recital," Sheila recalls. "After their dance routine, each girl had to come onstage, curtsy and say their last name. Erika introduced herself as Ericka Lynn Kirkpatrick Hatters."
Mother and daughter are just enough alike that the business maintains consistent quality, but they are different enough that they challenge each other creatively.
It's easy to see and feel the difference between a custom hat and a store-bought variation. The custom hat tends to be stiffer and holds its shape longer. The smooth, even stitches and detailing of the hat band, cutouts and trim all combine to create a well-finished product. In terms of fit, a custom hat can be sized to a fraction of an inch so it rests snugly and conforms to the shape of the wearer's head.
Montana Mad Hatters offer 10X, 50X and 100 percent pure beaver hats, and can customize them to suit even the most discriminating buyer. Prices start at less than $300, so even the ordinary working cowboy can own a piece of artistic headwear.
For more information on Montana Mad Hatters, visit montanahats.com, or call (406) 684-5869.